Concert Notes

Tan Dun’s Contrabass Concerto: “Wolf Totem”

Notes by TŌN violist Sydney Link

From Novel to Concerto
This concerto was written in 2014, shortly after Tan Dun had read the Chinese novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong. The novel portrays the extinction of the Mongolian wolf alongside the fading of the Mongols’ way of life. The concerto is organized in a standard three-movement form with the outer two movements containing both lyrical and rhythmic sections which flank a slow, tender middle movement. The solo bass is seen as the wolf, and his relation to nature is depicted throughout each movement.

The Music
Tan Dun combines aspects of Eastern and Western music in his concerto. The first movement opens with Tibetan singing bowls that have an atmospheric effect, creating a transparent sound environment for the first entrance of the solo bass. The embellishments in the bass at the very beginning are similar to the sound of Mongolian horse-head fiddle playing, which has horse-tail strings and is played with a bow. According to legend, it is a beloved Mongolian horse turned into an instrument. 

Rhythmic elements in the first and third movements depict the wolf and horses running through the Mongolian grasslands. We first hear this rhythm (which may remind you of Rossini’s Overture to Guillaume Tell) in the percussion in the first movement. The running gestures of the orchestra and the solo bass increase as the movement progresses. The first and third movements contain cadenza-like passages that show the variety of bass sounds.

In the second movement the listener hears the lonely wolf lamenting over his lost mother and home. The range of the bass as an instrument is heard throughout this movement. The final movement ends with a rhythmic explosion. The bass is a less common solo instrument in the string family, so it’s very exciting to play a concerto for an instrument that doesn’t get to showcase its virtuosity that frequently.